Supergroups have a long tradition in popular music. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson once joined forces as The Highwaymen. There were the Fania All-Stars, The Four Tenors and Audioslave. Recently, a group of established indie-rock musicians decided to partake in this tradition. They cheekily call themselves Monsters of Folk, and they've just released their debut album.
As a rule, I'm not a fan of supergroups; they usually water down individual visions without nailing down a collective one, and most pop stars aren't so good at sharing the spotlight. But when I heard that Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and solo artist M. Ward were teaming up, I thought, "OK, I love their work separately. With any luck it'll be, maybe, a Traveling Wilburys." To my surprise, these guys are in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young territory.
OK, maybe Monsters of Folk's members are more disaffected than Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and perhaps a little less polished. But like many of the year's outstanding indie-rock records — by Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors — the warmth and power of vocal harmonies are central to the Monsters of Folk record. And not in any single way: The men are folkies on one song, rockers on another. In "Dear God," they even do a halfway decent impression of The Impressions.
Beyond the singing, the group has three of rock's best songwriters working at the top of their game. Some songs have one man's imprint, like "Sandman, the Brakeman and Me" with lead vocals by M. Ward. Other songs seem like real collaborative efforts, and they work a few thematic threads. One is the idea of God, and another related theme is war.
Monsters of Folk might be addressing big themes, but there's little certainty in the band's lyrics. In that way, it feels less like a supergroup and more like, I don't know, a therapy group — although far more musical than any of the ones I've been in.